Monday, January 16, 2017

India, pre-occupied at home, is losing ground abroad; China, alert & pro-active, is gaining all around

Meanwhile, China has been gaining significantly in India's neighbourhood and at India's cost. Pre-occupied as we are with unprecedented internal schisms, setbacks in our external relations have not caught public attention. That only adds to the gravity of the diplomatic failures. To see how grievous they are, a glance is enough at the way we walked into a mess in Mongolia, alienated the Nepalese people and lost opportunities in Iran, all in the course of about a year.

Considering China's not-so-friendly moves against India of late, it looked like a smart move when Prime Minister Modi began sending some signals to Beijing. One was his visit to Mongolia in 2015. A bolder step followed last November when the Dalai Lama was encouraged to visit Mongolia.

China went livid with anger. Unlike in the past, China was now a big player asserting its power across the globe and having its way in almost all its strategic moves. It responded to the Mongolia-Dalai Lama-India tactic by virtually blockading Mongolia's transportation lifelines. Mountainous Mongolia is a landlocked country, sandwiched between Russia and China and dependent almost wholly on truck traffic through Chinese (Inner Mongolia) territory. To block this traffic is like strangling Mongolia.

The hapless country's first move was to appeal to India for help. No doubt it remembered the promise of $1 billion Prime Minister Modi had made during his visit. The pledge had not moved beyond the announcement stage and access to it at this juncture would mean considerable relief to Mongolia. Our foreign ministry responded to the friendly country's SOS by saying that it was working "to implement the credit line". Apparently nothing happened. Unable to wait, Mongolia apologised to China and said it would never welcome the Dalai Lama on its soil again. China promptly resumed talks for a $ 4.2 billion loan to Mongolia.

Now look at what happened when Nepal, another landlocked country, was blockaded from the Indian side in September 2015. India was insensitive to Nepalese sovereignty from Jawaharlal Nehru's days. The proprietorial attitude with which Indian Embassy officials in Kathmandu conducted themselves is part of foreign service lore. After Kingdom gave way to democracy in Nepal, India should have adjusted its approach. But it did not. It sat back and watched as Indian-origin Madhesis of Nepal's plains blockaded roads from India to Nepal to back their demand for special status in Nepal's new constitution. Daily life in Nepal was derailed.

What did China do? Within a month of the blockade, it rushed 1.3 million litres of petrol to Nepal as a grant, the first time in history that fuel from a source other than India reached Nepal. Steps were also taken to establish "regular and long-term trade" in petroleum between the two countries.

Looking far ahead as is its wont, China began work on several projects -- Nepal's access to Chinese ports for exports to third countries, free-trade agreement with duty-free access for Nepalese goods to China, upgrading nine roads from Tibet to Nepal, scheduling a railway line to reach Nepal by 2022. Geography will force Nepal to depend on India for many things, but the little Himalayan country is unlikely to feel helpless in a future crisis.

With Iran, too, India has a long history of unimaginative relations. Manmohan Singh, with his inexplicable closeness to George Bush, implicitly obeyed US-sponsored sanctions against Iran. Even when the US position changed under Barack Obama, Delhi did not get the message. In January last year, Iran's ambassador to India felt constrained to say: "In my three years as ambassador I have often been advised by Delhi to be patient with big India-Iran projects. Does India want to wait for centuries before capturing the right opportunities?".

Some time after that unusual reprimand, India formally approved the $150 million Chabahar project to develop the strategic Iranian port, including a transit route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. The political-economic importance of such a port cannot be overstated. Yet, there is no report of any significant progress. Meanwhile, 72 km away, China has already set up the Gwador port in Baluchistan. China has been busy in Iran itself, ignoring the sanctions. It has set up steel mills, constructed Teheran's metro system and is progressing with a massive elevated expressway. In February last year the first freight train from China's eastern province reached Teheran after a 14-day, 10000-km journey along the old Silk Road route.

There is a saying in China: "It is not enough to succeed; others must fail". Evidently, others agree.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Politicians, not only in UP, think they are forever; Refusing to retire, they cripple us for their ego

Uttar Pradesh is only a vicious example of a curse that plagues India -- politicians' refusal to retire. Politicians want power, fair enough. But, after a state leader becomes chief minister, then what? After he becomes chief minister three times and four times, then what? The ambition never stops. This is a sickness of the mind which, over a period of time, has become a sickness of Indian public life and of India itself.

Compared to L.K.Advani, 87, and Murali Manohar Joshi, 82, Mulayam Singh is young at 77. But the older men retired gracefully when the tide turned in a different direction in their party. By doing so, they retained their dignity. Today, on the rare occasions when Advani speaks, he gets the attention due to an elder statesman.

Mulayam Singh had more pressing reasons to retire. He is infirm, his speech is often slurring, his memory plays tricks with him. With all that, he has the gall to say that the party is his, that he is strong enough to become chief minister again. Obviously he suffers from the affliction common to most fossilised minds -- the conviction that they are irreplaceable, that "after me, the deluge".

He is not alone. K.R.Gowriamma, a communist revolutionary and member of Kerala's first elected ministry, is 98 today. She is beset by illness, cannot speak properly because of voice problems and looks her age. But she manoeuvres for positions of importance with a handful of followers, bargaining, arguing and "disciplining" her ranks.

The veteran, multi-talented war horse of Tamil Nadu, M.Karunanidhi, is 93. He has been Chief Minister five times and still leads his party, unsure whether his chosen son and heir has acquired the strength to take over. Recently hospitalised, he made his son working president of the party. At 83, Deve Gowda in Karnataka is a spent force with nothing new to offer. But he spends his time working out permutations and combinations, losing no opportunity to refer to himself as the former Prime Minister and getting nowhere.

Democracy stops these men from doing what Robert Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. Having captured power in his hapless country way back in 1980, he is still the unchallenged boss at age 93. His technique was simple: Eliminate everyone who disagreed, change the constitution as often and as comprehensively as he thought fit and ignore world opinion.

Something comparable was tried out in India with the declaration of Emergency. But Indira Gandhi was brought up in a tradition that would not accept the wholesale elimination of rivals. Indeed, her political culture pushed her into seeking popular mandate after two years of Emergency. And she came a cropper. Eventually she resorted to dynasty to perpetuate her hold. It worked briefly, then became counterproductive against India's ingrained democratic DNA.

One of the ways in which Deng Hsiaoping transformed China was by introducing two fixed terms of five years each for the President. The US had a similar system as part of its early constitution. Deng's achievement is that he ended the tradition, sustained by Mao Zedong, of an autocratic presidency of indefinite duration. His followers imbibed the spirit of the reform. Even Jiang Zemin remitted power when his term ended in 2003 although he was considered a king of corruption. Hu Jintao, president till 2013, remains in the background while Xi Jinping, current president, exercises power in his own style.

What our politicians do is humiliating by contrast. Consider Kerala. The last Congress government was enmeshed in corruption that was unprecedented in scale. The electorate defeated the Congress resoundingly. The proper thing in a democracy would have been for the disgraced leaders to quietly retire. Not in Kerala. The man who presided over the shoddy performance as chief minister, Oommen Chandy, now wants to capture the party. Public fisticuffs have occurred, leaders have hurled abuses at one another and the party has been reduced to an object of ridicule. All this for the ego satisfaction of a man who has been minister four times and chief minister twice.

Imagine Barack Obama plunging into group manipulations in the Democratic Party in order to become President again. Imagine David Cameron manoeuvring to get back into the Prime Minister's chair in Britain.

In grownup societies, people retire. It is ordained by nature, law and tradition. In the Indian tradition vaanaprastha is a vedic duty. Oommen Chandy would know that the Lord rested on the seventh day after completing his labours.

Rest, gentlemen, rest. Let the world move on.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Today is New Year's Day, says the West. Others agree. How the power of marketing controls the world

Happy New Year!

On second thoughts, why? In half the world January 1 is not the day on which a new year starts. India's kaleidoscopic culture knows New Year's Day by many names -- Yugadi in Karnataka, Ugadi in Telugu areas, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra, Cheti Chand in Sindhi regions, Sajibu Nongma Panba in Manipur. But they are all celebrated on the same day, the first day of Chaitra which is the first month of the year which is around April. In China it is between January end and February end and the celebration is so elaborate that everything shuts down for seven days.

January 1 became New Year's Day basically as a Western thing and a Christian thing. Those were the twin influences that shaped the world's ways at one stage in history. Unbeknown to them, however, the festivities of the occasion were throwing open new opportunities for commerce and merchandise. With that, the genius of marketing took over. The occasion and the celebrations now took on a veneer of universalism, suggesting the involvement of all peoples of all cultures. Like Christmas and Diwali, the original significance of the occasion mattered less than the profitability potential of the celebrations.

Not that the West had it easy when it was setting the pattern. Confusion and arbitrariness marked some of the early attempts at calendar-making. A Roman calendar had only ten months, March 1 being the start of the year. Under the Popes, Christmas Day, December 25, was made the first day of the year. Then Easter, March 25, was given the honour. Finally, in 1582, the Gregorian calendar came into vogue with January 1 restored to its earlier glory.

The power of the church and the might of colonial rulers ensured that what they approved as New Year's Day was so approved by the world as well. But the management of the system was quickly taken over by wizards with the talent to merchandise God himself. There is a saying in the West that New Year is just a holiday created by calendar companies that wanted people to buy new calendars.

One can be philosophical of course and ask why the end of one year and start of another should be an occasion for fireworks and gift exchanges and dancing and drinking. Indeed, what is there to celebrate when every year things get worse; when Arctic ice melts dangerously, forests and rivers die, contamination of food becomes an every day crime openly practised, human cruelties reach inhuman levels.

Legitimate issues that concern all of us. But the world is run, not by philosophers, but by marketeers. Valentine's Day, a commercially created idea for young people, rings up sales of $ 20 billion in the US alone. The size of the gift industry covering Christmas and New Year alone should be mind-boggling.

The marketing industry is peopled by experts specially blessed by the Creator. There is nothing they cannot sell. There's no limit to their creativity. Santa Clause, sanctified by Christmas, was invented by marketing wizards to popularise Coca Cola. Only once did the Cola people fail to achieve their target, and that apocryphally.

One day Coca Cola's advertising chief called on the Pope and said, "Your Holiness, we can offer you 5 million a month if you will change the line in the Lord's Prayer from 'give us this day our daily bread' to 'give us this day our daily Coke...'

After a moment's pause, the Holy Father replied: "We cannot do that, my son".

A few month's later, the company's President came and said, "Your Holiness, we can offer you 50 million a month if you would change 'our daily bread' to 'our daily Coke'.

The Pope was not amenable. On his way out, the President of the Cola company was heard asking his aides: "I wonder how much the bread people gave him".

In a world where nothing has value and everything has a price, festive occasions can only be seen as marketing-backed commercial celebrations. This has to be accepted as a fact of life because marketing controls almost all aspect of our lives. The only way to bring an element of sanity to it is to assert our individual worth and bend to the spirit of G.K.Chesterton's words:

"The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes".

Monday, December 26, 2016

The cash mess. Changing goalposts, new exemptions raise doubts about the Government's intentions

In the wake of the demonetisation tsunami, our Prime Minister asked for a 50-day grace period. That period ends this week, with no end to the sufferings of people at large. What has in fact become clear is that (a) the Government had not done its homework diligently enough before launching such a mammoth policy shift and (b) it is unsure now how to get out of the mess.

The confusion about how to proceed is reflected in the way goalposts are changed with unsettling frequency. It began with the 4000-rupee cap on exchange of old notes turning, within five days, to 4500 rupees, then to 2000 rupees. Withdrawal caps changed too. An indelible ink exercise lasted a few days. Special allowances for brides and bridegrooms brought heartburns because of the stringent operational rules announced alongside. (Political bigwigs of course had no problem conducting ostentatious weddings costing several hundreds of crores). A climax of sorts was reached last week when the Reserve Bank ruled that banned notes could be deposited only in one 5000-rupee instalment. It reversed the rule within a day, bringing itself and the Government to ridicule.

There was confusion even about the purpose of the new policy. Initially we were told that it was meant to end the menace of black money. Then they said it was intended to fight terrorism. More recently, the refrain is that the intention is to make India a modern cashless society, citizens using their mobile phones for their transactions with ease and speed.

None of these appears credible. The big boys of black money do not keep their hoards in 1000- and 500-rupee notes under their beds in India. Our Government says it knows the names of Indians with bank accounts in foreign safe havens. But there has been no serious effort to inconvenience them. Defanging terrorists was a plausible reason. But modern terrorists are a resourceful lot with sovereign states backing them. In any case, local terrorists can raise their own cash. Ask the gangs who emptied banks in Kashmir at gunpoint. That leaves the patriotic ambitions of turning India into an ultramodern cashless country. Noble idea. And forward-looking. But is this the time for it? And at the cost of such a colossal economic-social shakeup? The fact that India is among the world's poorest and most illiterate nations cannot be wished away. Are we to assume that daily wage earners, small-time farmers and sundry hawkers who don't even know what is a bank will be happy to see the country getting rid of cash, rather than vague things like illiteracy and poverty?

However dressed up, the picture was seriously vitiated on December 16 when the Finance Secretary in Delhi announced that political parties could deposit demonetised notes in their bank accounts without income-tax interference. Social media was outraged by this obvious bid to provide legal protection to corruption. The Election Commission pitched in by asking the Government to amend laws to stop exemption to anonymous contributions to parties and to remove parties that contest no elections from the exemption list.

Not many of us know that there are 1900 political parties registered with the Election Commission. Of these only 400 have bothered to contest any election between 2005 and 2015. The 1500 sleeping parties -- which obviously serve as convenient vehicles for some VIPs -- can accept demonetised notes as contributions from undeclared sources and keep them free of income tax. What a farce! The untenability of it was so patent that the Government quickly came up with a face-saving promise to consider the Election Commission's proposals.

This freshly-revealed tendency to allow political corruption will now have to be linked with the saga of bad debts accumulated by our public sector banks. Of all people, Vijay Mallya showed how wreckless the banks had been. Of the 7000 crore he borrowed from various banks, 1600 crore came from the State Bank of India. They knew King Fisher's financial position, he remarked in a letter. Many banks, he said, advanced loans to many businesses in this manner, their total adding up to Rs 11 trillion (11,000 billion).

Who authorised this extraordinary generosity to doubtful borrowers? And why the sudden rise in the bounty in the last two years? According to published reports, the non-performing assets of public sector banks rose by 4 percent during 2004-12 and by 60 percent during 2013-15. When facts of this kind rise before us, it becomes difficult to believe that demonetisation was a wholly patriotic move.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Dangers of using religion as a political weapon. It's a problem that plagues others as well

"The country yearns for a national leadership that can shore up unity imperilled by burgeoning identity politics. Dangerously, identity politics is the politics of division that undermines the shared awareness that we are one nation. It erodes solidarity and tolerance, the essential spirit we need to keep the country's integrity. It breeds distrust, suspicion and animosity that can easily erupt into conflicts. When it comes to achieving the common wellbeing, people of all stripes -- majority and minority alike -- will have to fall and rise together. Bigots who reduce politics to such identities as ethnicity, race and religion are sowing the seeds of division that can spell doom to the nation..."

Strong words against the politics of polarisation and intolerance. Timely, too, when people are encouraged to turn against people in the name of religion and ethnicity. Who is putting it so bluntly -- and boldly? I had to pinch myself to remember that I was in a foreign land, reading a local newspaper, The Jakarta Post. Nor was the local columnist, Pandaya, writing about India. His concern was his own country. After half a century of multicultural peace, Indonesia is in the thick of sectarian politics similar to India's: Ultras in the majority community are asserting themselves against religious and ethnic minorities.

This is a throwback to the early years of Indonesian independence. Despite the universalism of nationalist leaders like Sukarno and Hatta, political Islam was strong enough to enforce a code under which one had to have a religion to gain citizenship rights and only monotheistic religions were officially recognised. In 1952 the Ministry of Religion declared Bali, the home of an indigenous version of Hinduism, as in need of an Islamic conversion campaign. Bali's local government resisted the move so strongly that constitutional provisions were changed. In 1962 five religions became legal. Today Indonesia recognises Islam (87 percent of the population according to 2010 census), Christianity (just about 10 percent), Hinduism (2 percent), Buddhism (1 percent) and Confucianism (0.05 percent).

As columnist Pandaya reminded his readers, "under dictator Suharto's iron fist, we rarely heard of regional elections marred by debates on the candidate's ethnicity or religion". After Suharto, there has been no iron fist. Current President Joko Widodo is too soft and gentlemanly to have a fist at all. So political Islam is polishing up its steel fist. Its target: Jakarta Governor Ahok Parnama who is standing for re-election.

Ahok is a double minority: Chinese and Christian. He has been charged with an offence unforgivable in Islam: blasphemy. What is interpreted as blasphemy is a statement by Ahok that some people had been deceived [by other people] using al-maidah 51 of the Koran. As his supporters point out, he was not blaming the Koranic verse but those who used it to deceive others.

But his opponents wanted immediate action under blasphemy laws, namely, imprisonment of Ahok and punishment. Violent rallies have been held by Muslim groups under umbrella organisations like the National Movement to Save Indonesia. To diffuse the tension, President Jokowi let the police question Ahok as a suspect. His trial began last week, Ahok pleading his case with testimony by seven witnesses and 14 experts. The Human Rights Watch has asked President Jokowi to change blasphemy and other laws that are being used to persecute religious minorities.

Ironically, Muslims were persecuted by Christian army generals during the Suharto years. Determined to suppress political Islam, religious Muslims were denied promotion and even prevented from using the Islamic greeting Salam Alaikum. Some Generals even insulted the Koran. Suharto, a staunch Muslim, encouraged all that because he saw political Islam as a threat to his authority.

Suharto is gone and political Islam is back with a bang. Ahok's record in public life is immaculate and even his enemies concede that he is a great administrator. He is popular too. But religious sentiments have been aroused to such an extent that it is doubtful whether he will win the gubernatorial election next month. His defeat could cast shadows on the presidentship of Jokowi himself.

Communal sentiments are easy to arouse in Indonesia with political Islam remaining strong despite the Suharto Government's efforts to suppress it. Soon after the brouhaha was kicked up over Ahok's "blasphemy", there were reports of a possible coup which the President's office had to publicly deny. The country is "safe, very safe", said Jokowi. As if to prove it, he travelled to Delhi last week. Was his confidence justified? We will know next month.